Brilliant, daring, large-scale thefts, and what they can teach us about mistakes and vulnerabilities.
There’s something fascinating about a good heist. The planned elegance of a large-scale theft has the irresistible attraction of a duel of wits. The thieves, we often feel, outsmarted the folks they stole from. Of course, this means that each great heist has something we can learn about not being outsmarted. Other times, the thieves pulled off their crimes by using an aspect of the systems in place, and those crimes have something to teach us about how systems work. Let’s look at a few of the great ones and see what we can learn.
1. The Brink’s Job — 1950
In 1950, everyone knew that Brink’s armored cars were the gold standard in security. Folks would joke about something being locked up tighter than a Brink’s truck, and everyone got the joke. Then, in 1950, seven men walked into the Brink’s Building in Boston and walked out with $2.7 million.
The facts, as they came out, were embarrassing. The thieves had initially opened the locks on the building without even using lockpicks. Once inside, they had to track down the truck schedules and cargo information, the crucial data that would make the heist possible. Fortunately, it was hanging on a clipboard on the wall, in plain view. The thieves had keys made and could enter and leave the building as they pleased, which they did. For years. It was just a matter of waiting for the maximum possible payoff, and once the right combination of cash and negotiables was in the building, they struck. Only $58,000 of the money was ever recovered.
The Lesson: Don’t coast on reputation.
The nice thing about everyone knowing you’re the best is that no one ever tests it. Until, one day, someone ignores what “everyone knows” and tests it. If you’re only getting by on reputation, you’re not going to pass that test.
2. The Mona Lisa Theft — 1911
The most famous painting in the world, the icon of artistic achievement, kept at the world’s foremost gallery of fine art. Then one morning as they opened the museum, someone noticed there was a blank spot on the wall where it had been. The Mona Lisa would not be seen again for two years.
How did this happen? How did one of the most valuable objects on earth walk right out the door? Because of one disgruntled employee.
Vincenzo Peruggia had been a janitor at the Louvre, and the guards were accustomed to seeing him come and go, often carrying or moving various things. He was also a very patriotic Italian who considered French possession of da Vinci’s masterpiece to be illegitimate. Being an enterprising sort, he eventually decided to stop complaining and do something about it. He was only captured when he attempted to return the painting to Italy, under the very creative pseudonym Leonardo Vincenzo.
The Lesson: Employees are human beings.
When the folks at the Louvre looked at Peruggia, they didn’t see an Italian nationalist. They didn’t see a man with a grudge. They didn’t see a man with the brains and initiative to carry off a daring, perfectly-planned theft. All they saw was a janitor, and janitors are invisible. If they’d paid attention to the human being behind the mop, things could have gone very differently.
3. Joseph Jagger Breaks the Bank at Monte Carlo — 1875
This one’s not technically a heist; Joseph Jagger took the Beaux-Arts Casino for two million francs without ever breaking or even bending a law. All he did was track their roulette wheels very closely, until he found one with a manufacturing flaw that caused it to hit certain numbers more often than others. Armed with that information, he was able to place bets with greater odds of winning. Over enough bets, those odds evened out into mathematical certainty, and he won a fortune from them and walked away clean, retiring as a wealthy man.
The Lesson: Watch your quality control.
If you’re running a roulette wheel that’s so out of whack it’s hitting the same numbers over and over, you should know that. The same goes for whatever other system or product your business depends on. If you’re not keeping track of that kind of serious mistake, someone else will be.
4. The Iraqi Bank Job — 2003
Also technically not illegal, this is easily the largest heist on this list. The day before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein signed a letter authorizing the withdrawal of a billion U.S. dollars in cash. His son Qusay was sent to the bank to pick it up; it took five hours to load the vast pallets of bills onto three separate trucks.
Where did all that money go, you ask? Interesting question. The fog of war covers a great deal, and exactly how much was quietly shuffled off overseas, or seized, or hidden, may never be fully known. A billion dollars in hundred-dollar bills takes up an awful lot of space.
The Lesson: It’s all about the Benjamins.
There was a billion dollars in cash in Saddam Hussein’s bank. Think about that: there’s not a billion dollars in cash in your bank. Cash, most especially the U.S. dollar, remains a cornerstone of international trade, especially the shady kind. There is, in fact, more U.S. currency being held overseas, mostly in $100 bills, than there is circulating in America. Remember that the next time someone tells you cash is obsolete.
5. The Mr. Flomenbaum Job — 2007
Every one of these heists was carried out by a team, or at least with the help of assistants. Not the diamond thief known only as Mr. Flomenbaum, though. “Carlos Hector Flomenbaum”, most definitely not his real name, worked alone. Using his personal charm and easy manner, he won over the staff of the ABN Amro bank in Antwerp, posing as an international trader who needed to do regular business there. He was such a sweet, trustworthy guy that within a year, the bank gave him key-card access to their vaults, a privilege reserved for trusted customers whose business the bank wanted to ensure.
At which point, Mr. Flomenbaum walked out with 120,000 carats of other people’s diamonds. He hasn’t been seen since.
The Lesson: There is no substitute for the personal touch.
We still make decisions based on handshakes and personal charm. We may think we don’t, we may tell ourselves that we’re hard-headed thinkers who only look at the numbers, but we are still a species that evolved to form social bonds for survival. If you think you can afford to skip making a personal connection with the people you work with, remember the time a million-dollar security system was hacked with nothing but a warm smile and a box of chocolates.
6. The Antwerp Diamond Heist — 2003
Five men. $100 million in diamonds. No clues. To this day, no one knows how they did it. If that sounds like a movie trailer to you, you’re not the only one; J.J. Abrams is slated to direct the movie of this heist. But it really happened.
The mastermind of the crime is believed to be a man named Leonardo Nartobotolo, leader of a team known as the School of Turin. He was linked to the crime, persuasively enough to put him behind bars for ten years, though he has since been paroled. The diamonds were never recovered.
The Lesson: Think long-term.
Ten years behind bars. At the end of it, your one-fifth share of a hundred-million-dollar payoff. That’s what I call a good long-term investment. To put it another way, Mr. Nartoboloto was earning two million dollars a year for sitting in jail. Where I come from, that’s a pretty decent salary. Try thinking of your own long-term investments in those terms.
7. The Société Générale Bank Job — 1976
On a tired Monday morning after a long holiday weekend, the staff of the Société Générale bank in Nice, France, trudged in to work, open up the vault as usual, and discovered it was welded shut. Worse, when they did get it open, they found it completely empty. All the money was gone, all the safe-deposit boxes had been opened, and nothing was left but a large hole in the wall and a message that translates as “Without weapons, nor hate, nor violence.”
The Société Générale had been taken by a gang led by Albert Spaggiari, an ex-paratrooper who had spent months on a plan that involved digging their way into the vault from an adjoining sewer line, preparing gourmet meals in the tunnel and planning their breakthrough perfectly, for the beginning of the long weekend that would give them three leisurely days in the vault, to empty every square inch of it.
Even when Spaggiari was captured, he escaped from his sentencing by leaping from a second-floor window onto a waiting van, then hopping from the van to a scooter and vanishing. Despite taunting letters to the police, he would not be seen again by any authority until his death in 1989, when his body was anonymously returned to his family so they could give him a proper funeral.
The Lesson: Sometimes you get beat fair and square.
Not every loss means you should scold yourself for what you did wrong. Sometimes you did everything right, and you got taken anyway. The Albert Spaggiaris of the world aren’t something you can plan for.
With thanks to crime author Roger Hobbs.
Photo—Poster for The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo, 1935